Since the Great Recession, states have continuously struggled with unemployment rates and devaluation of industries vital to local economies — and Rhode Island was no exception, having experienced highest unemployment rate for seven months in 2013-2014. But now, the state has now dropped below the average in its region.
Stefan Pryor, the state’s Secretary of Commerce, said a pronounced effort has been placed on workforce development, and particularly in crafting collaborative pipelines between high school, higher ed institutions and private industries. He points to the state’s Pathways in Technology Early College High School Initiative (P-TECH), in which high school students can enroll in specialized programs to take college courses that will let them graduate with a diploma and an industry-specific associate degree.
Collaboration across all parts of the education and industry can fill workforce gaps
“(It’s) the integration of otherwise siloed partners; the community college system on the one hand, the employer participants, the high school at the center of the collaboration, that’s a rare approach,” he said about the program. “We find it very effective because young people are given so many advantages within a single program; they have multiple opportunities within a single educational experience, and they have an opportunity to earn an associate’s degree, a college degree and are linked to an employer.”
P-TECH was announced by Gov. Gina M. Raimondo in December 2015, with different locations serving various specializations — the first three school districts selected focused on information technology, advanced manufacturing and cybersecurity. Pryor said it's incumbent on the director of each P-TECH program to ensure there is coordination and collaboration between the high schools, community colleges and business leaders. The next program to open will be at Woodsocket, RI this fall, with CVS Pharmacies acting as the industry partner.
“Typically the employer or set of employers have a major presence in the region where the high school is located, so there’s a natural pre-existing familiarity and connection,” Pryor said. “But this is the first formal partnership.”
Universities can help industry leaders figure out how to support training programs
In an economy where industry needs can change substantively and rapidly, Pryor says it's important to ensure businesses are in a position to advise on workforce development content in schools, and to also offer training opportunities of their own.
He cited the Real Jobs Rhode Island initiative as an additional approach for collaboration, where employers can express their immediate priorities, and can apply for public funding and resources to help support or build training programs to fill those needs.
Pryor mentions a partnership between the University of Rhode Island and the state’s commercial fisheries industry. Together these groups established an apprenticeship program for students interested in pursuing work in the field. The industry had been facing a shrinking and aging workforce, according to Pryor, with employee shortages stemming from a lack of young people seeking work in commercial fisheries.
In response to the growing gap, industry leaders worked with the university to create an apprenticeship program that involved classwork in fish dock assessment, net mending and engine repair, with much of the training taking place on fishing vessels to offer strong vocational experience.
“Students in the course of their apprenticeship are introduced to the fisheries community, and before they know it they’re offered a job in that industry,” he said.
The P-TECH and Real Jobs Rhode Island programs mirror a broader, bipartisan support to strengthen vocational education and apprenticeship training. President Donald Trump has affirmed his support for strengthening federal funding support for apprenticeship programs throughout the country, and federal legislators and governors alike have called for a renewed focus on vocational education.
In Rhode Island, Pryor feels workforce development initiatives are paying dividends, as the state has reached an employment-number peak.
“Our young people are being prepared for the jobs available now and the jobs of the future,” he said.